Wilco performs at the Roseland Theater in Portland in 2004.
Last week when we saw Wilco perform, it was just like the first time. No camera around my neck and girl named Sara at my side.
The first time? That was November 17, 1994 at an unannounced show under the name of Black Shampoo at Cicero’s Basement Bar on Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis.
I’ve just listened to the entire bootleg of that show. It’s a bit scratchy and noisy, but it’s all there. And by all, I mean everything buried deep in my mind from that time. School, canoe trips, girlfriends, barbeques, road trips. They were pretty good times and somehow that recording just caused it all to flash through my mind on fast forward.
“We’ve been practicing in Belleville all week. So this is our first show ever,” Jeff Tweedy says over the loud buzz of an amp and the clanking of longneck bottles.
“So, um, how’d you guys find out?” He asks. In the not so-long-ago days before twitter, etc., it was all land lines and word of mouth. “It’s all Beatle Bob’s fault.”
I’d found out through a guy named Kip who had close ties to all things musical in St. Louis. My childhood friend PJ, my brother Tommy and I got there early and sat at the end of the bar not far from the little stage. Our friends Tash and Sara slipped in past the bouncer…the last two souls to get down the steps and into the little room before they called it a full house.
I’ve had this bootleg for years thanks to a friend who’s good at digging these types of things up. But I only listened to it once for about thirty seconds. I suppose I just haven’t felt like digging around in that layer of time.
Jeff Tweedy in 2004
As ‘I Must Be High’ ends, Tweedy says, “That’s the first song on the record that won’t be out for a long time. It’s the first song we ever played, and the first time we played it is on the record.”
The concert is raw and a bit gritty. There’s a fiddle, banjo and mandolin. It’s more Uncle Tupelo than present day Wilco.
As I listened to the recording, all the questions and sadness I had as I watched my favorite band disintegrate crashed through my mind and deep into my chest. After Uncle Tupelo split up, people seemed to take sides. Interviews with the bandmates Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy only seemed to deepen the wound. I stopped reading stories about Farrar and his Son Volt and Tweedy and his Wilco. I didn’t really care if they got back together, I wanted more music.
“I really would like to thank you for, up to this point, not hearing anyone yell ‘Whiskey Bottle,'” Tweedy says. He knew we were all thinking about Uncle Tupelo and our favorite songs from those albums – even the ones Jay sang. But he’d already moved on.
And there are hints of what is to come. Before ‘Pick Up the Change’, Tweedy says, “I have to sing this one pretty quiet, so, shut up.” It was good to hear. Like the rest of the recording, it’s pure and honest. I’m happy to know that attitude didn’t come with fame because he’s still known to set his guitar down and lecture a chatty crowd.
At the time, I was bummed out that the Uncle Tupelo days were over. Little did I know that the split would spawn two avenues of music that I’d still be listening to sixteen years later.
Half way through the first set, Tweedy says, “We’re going to do a song in a minute that we used to do in another band.” I could feel my eyes well up as they eased into ‘New Madrid’, a tune from Uncle Tupelo’s last album. I miss that sound.
Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets was standing right next to us that night at Cicero’s. He had on a corduroy Uncle Tupelo ball cap. I remember regretting never buying one. I remember asking him if he had more. I still wanted something more from that band.
Before the show started, Tweedy slipped up next to us to chat with Henneman. PJ offered to buy him a beer, but he shook his head and said, “No thanks, man. I’m too nervous.” Nervous. This guy was about to play the first show of what will be, in 2010, one of the most famous bands in the world.
After a couple of encores Tweedy says, “Thanks a lot for letting us play under a stupid fake name.” They played a few more tunes and ended with a cover of Tom Petty’s ‘Listen To Her Heart.’
It took me and Sara more than a year after that show to figure out we should date. Fourteen more years have since passed by.
Cicero’s is still there, but the basement is long gone and Chicago claims Wilco now. The other night at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, we were a long way from Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis. The band pulled from all their albums except for that first release. But that’s alright. I’ve got the album and that bootleg on my shelf and I’m still lucky enough to have Sara at my side.
Jeff Tweedy in 2004
all images © Tim LaBarge 2004